The shipping lie

Mar 23, 2023
View of heavy loaded container cargo ship.

Defence Minister Richard Marles has now told us why we need nuclear submarines – not to defend Taiwan or attack China, but to defend our merchant shipping. Sounds credible until one does the maths.

There are 26,000 ship port calls involving over 3,000 different ships at 70 Australian ports each year to exchange 580 million tonnes of cargo with a value in excess of $A190 billion Shipping Australia.

And below is a map of their main trade routes with Australia. China is Australia’s largest two-way trading partner in goods and services, accounting for one third of our trade with the world. It is not in China’s interests to disrupt it.

Image: World Map Bank

Marles should explain how three nuclear submarines by 2039 or eight by 2055 can defend each of these ships doing 26,000 round trips from being sunk by enemy submarines, destroyers or bombers. Note that only one sub in three will be at sea at any time with the other two in port for maintenance or training purposes.

Marles would probably answer that our subs would be assisted by America’s 67 nuclear submarines (China has only 12 but is planning to have 21 by the early 2030s). But what guarantee does he have that America would prioritise Australia’s trade routes and shipping movements over its own?

Clearly very few merchant ships plying to and from Australia could expect to be chaperoned by a nuclear submarine in the event of a war.

Marles’ maths doesn’t add up.

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